I am in the bad habit of saying “merci!”, “gracias”, “gracias muchas”, when I wan to be flippantly thankful. And si signor/signorita when I am feeling playful.
I learnt Swedish as a young adult, a process that stretched my patience, my self confidence & my intelligence to their thinnest. In my learning exhaustion, I have been very resistant to learning any new language in adulthood.
Imagine my pleasure then when I decided during this Tuscany trip that I will learn Italian. Even if I just manage to learn the basics, I will learn Italian.
It is not that Italians don’t speak English, most them speak lots of good English. But, every day, we found someone who spoke very little English; like the little restaurant where we had the most wonderful quiet breakfast on our last day in Florence. The husband was totally dependent on his wife to listen to us & translate for him. It was a young-ish couple too!
Foooor F#¤k’s sake!
We had booked a retreat to Diecimo Pescaglia in the Borgo a Mozano province. It is a nice hidden oas hidden in the hills just 20-30minutes from Lucca. We arrived at the Diecimo-Pescaglia train station to find an abandoned station with an empty “office”. An old man was was approaching us at snail speed. Slower than snail speed. We are glad to wait because we need to ask him if we can order a taxi or something to take us to Borgo Giusto Hotel. He eventually arrives. We say a jolly gracious Buongiorno! Buona sera! He answers back
We are so impressed with ourselves we look at each other proudly. We then remember why we have been waiting for him.
“Scusi signor, can we ask you how to get to Borgo Giusto?”
He does stop, and look at our printed booking, and reads the address.
He says “I don’t know. I don’t recognize that. I cannot help you. Bye bye.” in Italian.
We, in unison “taxi?” head shakes. finger wiggling. “oh no. no taxis here. if you walk up the street there, you may find someone who speaks your language & can help you”. In Italian.
We turn in the direction he points & we see a man unloading his bags from the trunk of a car. I am sure one of us says “oh! another tourist! we can ask him!”. We drag our 3 bags (we are 2) towards the car but by the time we get to the car, the man has gone in to the building. We think it is a B&B. There are 2 men standing outside, one quite old, another middle aged.
Scusi, can you help us call a taxi, call the hotel, or something to get here (pointing at the print out of our booking? both poke their noses into the paper, go into a long dialog, pointing wiggling fingers, head shakes and nods. “We don’t really know, but, it must be behind the hills. Far. And there are no taxis to take.” In Italian.
We: “English?” in english
Middle aged gentle man: “Non. a little French or German.” in Italian
Me: “telefono” pointing at the telephone number to the hotel
Middle aged gentle man: The gentlemen speak among themselves a little more. heads shaking. laughter.
We are stamped. The oldest gentleman points at the younger man and says a lot. “he will drive you. That’s his car. pointing. if anyone can find it, he can.” I Italian.
Middle aged gentleman starts to take our 3 bags to the car. We are young, we help out.
We have no idea what kind of contract we have signed or how much it will cost. We need to go places and someone is willing to take us there in any language. We get into the car.
Middle aged gentleman makes a call on his mobile, speaks to a friend. In Italian.
“Montalbano! do you know where Borgo Giusto is!? two idiots I have to drive there! they seem nice, but totally lost. Can’t speak Italian either! Who doesn’t speak Italian??! Morons, that’s who. ah ja, round the bend? turn by the big oak? I know which one! oh ja, the yellow ones? they smell nice!”
For 15 minutes he speaks on the phone. We pass a small village or market. I feel happy, there are people, even here behind the big hill. He then hangs up. And keeps driving. Turns right into the bushes.
I am brought up in Africa, I am trained to depend on & trust other people’s kindness. Ubuntu. We are one, you live, I live, you die, I die. And the walls for crude oil, land & other resources continue to rage. My Swedish travel partner is brought up different. I have no idea how. He is fidgety, wondering if we really should trust this. I keep my hand on his hand. To transmit calmness and trust.
After 25-30 minutes drive, around the bend, after the old fig tree, we see the hotel parking lot. And a view to pay for. We are here. Since we don’t know how much we agreed to pay, we give our gentleman a note. It is not too big & not too small.
“no. it was my pleasure. I am glad we found it & hat you are safe. Shall I help you with the bags?” In Italian.
A couple taking photos in Florence. After their wedding I suppose. It is a universal language, isn’t it? the language of declaring eternal love to another person in all sorts of ways.
I am amazed at how much we can communicate with others without words. I am so happy to find that my childhood trust in basic kindness is intact. And we are so humbled & thankful that with all the changes, someone in Italy is still concerned about the safety of young people traveling in the unknown.
This happened to us so many times, I could write a story for every day. Not always someone driving us somewhere, but someone helping us out in Italian. Gladly, kindly & memorable.
I wonder if Lord Byron learnt Italian? […] But I have lived, and have not lived in vain: My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire, And my frame perish even in conquering pain; But there is that within me which shall tire Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire; Something unearthly, which they deem not of, Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre, Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.
Ask for help! you will need it. We all need help sometimes.
- Relax! I believe if you only ever speak with people who understand you on the first try, you never really learn patience or appreciation of the simple truths.
- Plan some margins in travel. That way, even if you are a little delayed by language hitches, you still have time to listen in another language. It is part of the experience.
- If you are even a dot of the control freak that I am, you need to relinquish control & trust in basic human kindness. All is well if you find one person willing to listen & reply; even in Italian.